Q: What exactly is Windows 7’s XP mode and what’s it used for? — Brian

A: Microsoft knew that it was going to have a tough time convincing hardcore Windows XP users to migrate to Windows 7 because some older applications and hardware (like scanners) that required Windows XP could not be updated to work in Windows 7.

This scenario is more likely to play itself out in business environments, but some consumers may also have special software or older peripherals that would benefit from this feature.

For those that tried to migrate to Windows Vista in the past and ran into a compatibility issue, this feature was specifically added to address your situation.

Certain versions of Windows 7 have an optional feature called Windows XP mode, which, unlike the ‘XP Compatibility mode’ that was in Windows Vista, is an actual complete copy of Windows XP with SP3 (Service Pack 3) that can run as a ‘virtual’ system within Windows 7.

This means that older or outdated applications and peripherals that would only work in Windows XP can run in a virtual session that will appear as just another icon in Windows 7 (and it’s really cool how smoothly it works).

But before you get too worked up about this creative approach to migrating older users and applications, there are some ‘requirements’ that you should know about.

If you have old XP based applications, then you probably have old XP level hardware, which isn’t likely to support this new feature.

In order to support XP Mode, you will need a newer computer with a processor capable of ‘hardware virtualization’ (AMD-V or Intel VT), at least 2 GB of RAM and a recommended 15 GB of free drive space.

Note: Hardware virtualization support must be turned on in the computer’s BIOS, which is generally off by default.

If you want to see if your computer is capable of supporting Windows XP Mode, you can run Microsoft’s Hardware-Assisted Virtualization Detection tool.

In addition, the only versions of Windows 7 that support XP Mode are Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions, which means that if you get the Home Premium version — the least expensive — you don’t have this option.

The reality is, you won’t need this feature to simply surf the Web, exchange emails, and write some letters. It’s only for those with special programs and older peripherals.

Microsoft did a much better job of addressing the compatibility issues that were created when it released Vista and has an easy to use Windows 7 Compatibility Center that allows you to check the compatibility of most popular hardware components and software programs here.

The XP Mode feature is a godsend to corporate IT departments as it provides a much more comprehensive way to migrate to Windows 7 without the expense of updating old custom programs that were designed to run in Windows XP.

What is very important to understand is that this is not a replacement for Windows 7 and should only be used for specific programs or devices that won’t work in Windows 7.

For instance, if you plan on using XP Mode, you wouldn’t want to surf the Internet from within the XP session because it would expose you to all of the vulnerabilities that Windows XP has.

Windows 7 is significantly more secure for Web browsing in today’s hostile Internet environment (keep in mind, Windows XP was designed to deal with security threats that existed in 2001), so minimizing what you do in XP Mode is prudent.

As you may have already realized, this feature is not designed to be set up by the casual user, so if you think you might have a need for the feature, consult a knowledgeable technical resource or your local computer expert to review your specific situation before you spend the money on something you don’t actually need!

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show